What is language for a people? The most obvious answer is that it is a means of communication. But what if we look deeper and examine other properties of language rather than communication alone?
Beginning from the time when languages were first devised by people, they have been a vital part of any culture. To speak your native language means to show where you come from, to demonstrate your national identity, to show where you belong. Before writing and printing came into existence, information of different kind was transmitted orally by means of spoken language. When written and, later, printed media appeared, it became possible to document events or tales and thus languages that people spoke.
However, there are times when a people cannot speak their own language and have to adopt a new one. Reasons and ways of doing so vary greatly, but one fact remains certain: if one wishes to deprive a people of their national identity and assimilate them with a dominant culture, they should begin by banning them from speaking their language. The rest of the assimilation process will follow quickly. J. R. R. Tolkien was well aware of such bans and their consequences, and he introduced a similar situation in The Silmarillion.
By the time the Noldor returned to Middle-earth from Aman, the Sindarin culture had become prominent in the region. The Sindar were a very numerous people and Sindarin was spoken by a large number of Elves in Middle-earth. The exilic Noldor were new to that established culture. They spoke a different language — Quenya, also called the High-elven tongue. For a time the Noldor were free to speak their own language, and they also learnt Sindarin quickly and willingly. Their mixing with the Sindar left a distinct mark on Quenya: several loanwords entered the language for those notions that the Noldor had no names for in Aman. But that friendly linguistic co-existence was soon to change.
On learning that the Noldor were guilty of Kinslaying at Alqualondë, Elu Thingol, who originally was of the Teleri and kin to the Elves of Alqualondë, forbade the exiled Noldor to speak their language in Beleriand:
Never again in my ears shall be heard the tongue of those who slew my kin in Alqualondë! Nor in all my realm shall it be openly spoken, while my power endures. All the Sindar shall hear my command that they shall neither speak with the tongue of the Noldor nor answer to it. And all such as use it shall be held slayers of kin and betrayers of kin unrepentant.
(Silmarillion, p. 149)
Thingol’s ban worked in several ways. First, it was a direct attack on the Noldorin identity and, thus, a severe blow for it: the Noldor grew up learning and speaking Quenya, it was an integral part of their lives and culture. Noldor’s loremasters had worked hard at devising the language, improving it, and with the ban its free usage as well as further development were checked in the wider world: following Thingol’s law Quenya was no longer the language of daily converse for the Elves in Middle-earth and was substituted by Sindarin.
Linguistically the Noldor had to assimilate with the Sindar, thus losing a big part of their identity: Quenya is closely associated with the Eldar from the West, with their lore, wisdom, beauty. Their language is the reflection of the Eldar in its very core. The euphony of Quenya was achieved through a long process of hard work, modifications and changes. The Noldor were great lovers of words, so they worked incessantly at creating the most fitting words for various notions. Some words were borrowed from Valarin (though with great changes to sound more pleasing for Elvish ears), but the Valar encouraged the Elves to create their own words in their beautiful tongue. Quenya was the quintessence of the Noldor’s creativity, their love for language and their linguistic talent.
The second aspect of Thingol’s law was that the Sindar did not have a chance to learn more about the Noldorin culture. They did have an introduction to Quenya through communication with the Noldor right after their arrival and before Thingol’s ban, but the Sindar were slow to master Quenya and they did not get enough time to make a better acquaintance with the language. Any language contains vast layers of information about how a people lives, what they value, what they find important and what not. The whole world outlook of a people, their history and philosophy are engraved into a language. All of these became taboo for the Sindar.
However, there was a loophole for the Noldor in Thingol’s ban: he forbade the open use of Quenya. The Noldor were great loremasters of tongues, so they realised full well the possible consequences of this law: Quenya could simply become extinct in Middle-earth, slip into oblivion, causing the utter erasure of the Noldor’s identity and their total assimilation with the Sindar.
Prolific British linguist David Crystal singles out three stages that languages go through on their way to extinction (1). The first step is pressure on a people not to speak their language, coming from different sources and for different reasons. In case of the Noldor the pressure was exercised from the top by King Thingol. The second step is bilingualism that emerges as speakers begin to master a new language. The Noldor reached this stage rather quickly as they learnt Sindarin swiftly and even before Thingol enforced his ban. The third stage in Crystal’s classification results from the newly acquired bilingualism: after people have mastered a new language, they begin to use their old one less and less. Younger generations do not always learn or even hear an old language spoken in their households, neither do they converse in it. Some families go on speaking an old language among themselves, but it soon turns into a family dialect. In our world this leads to the death of a language.
The Noldor loved and valued Quenya too much to let it disappear. Thus they preserved the language which was dear to them in usage among themselves:
…the High Speech of the West was spoken only by the lords of the Noldor among themselves. Yet that speech lived ever as a language of lore, wherever any of that people dwelt.
(Silmarillion, p. 150)
Quenya became the language of lore, poetry and solemn, ceremonial occasions. It froze as the language of a relatively small group of Elves in the state it was in at that point and was unlikely to develop after Thingol’s ban. The Noldor were not ready to fully blend with the Sindarin culture, so to avoid the extinction of their language in Middle-earth, the lords of the Noldor used it among themselves. Preserving, or rather conserving, Quenya among themselves, the Noldor did not lose touch with their roots and kept a considerable layer of their culture alive to pass on to younger generations of Elves in Middle-earth.
It is the written documents that allowed the Exilic Noldor to pass Quenya to their children born in Middle-earth. However, the language was not inherited but learnt in childhood. For example, Pengolodh was born in Nevrast and was bilingual: he knew both Quenya and Sindarin. Quenya was also the speech of daily converse for Eärendil in Gondolin, as after founding the Hidden Kingdom Turgon re-established Quenya as the language of everyday use. The tongue was not unknown to some of the Edain, though they, too, used it mostly as the language of lore and held daily converse in Sindarin.
The Noldor did everything they could to preserve their mother tongue Quenya. Once a language is no longer spoken by people, it can die. If there are no written sources in an endangered language, it can disappear without a trace. In our world languages die with people who speak them or when a people has to fully assimilate with a more dominant culture. Language preservation is a difficult endeavour, and in order to keep an endangered language alive, a people speaking it must be willing and ready to preserve it. The Noldor were great linguists, and they realised the consequences of Thingol’s ban. Thus they did everything to preserve their own language and to keep it alive in Middle-earth.
(1) David Crystal – How Language Works.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- David Crystal – How Language Works; Penguin Books; 2007.
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